One of the things I did while in the Carolinas on a visit was to take a look at some property a private landowner is potentially looking to purchase. Along with a representative from a local land trust who dropped by for a visit, we set out to hit a few points of interest on the large tract of land. After driving to the entrance, we set out hiking along a creek swollen from the previous days' rains and then over to a power line right-of-way (minus the power lines). Our next stop would be the opposite side of the right-of-way and then to one of several ponds on the property. We walked up and down the rolling topography, taking the time to look and listen to the story the land would tell.
Going to a few more places that we felt would be most interesting, we noticed a couple of hours had slipped right by us. As cool as the property was and as nice as the things we saw were, none of it was unexpected. There was at least one more place worth seeing and we decided it was worth pushing our afternoon schedules another thirty minutes to visit. Nature, as she often does, had a little something up her sleeve for us.
Rounding a corner, we saw an old, abandoned structure that piqued my curiosity. I asked if we could take a moment to investigate and then walked into the dilapidated building. Immediately, I knew my suspicions were right and there was a very cool bird around. In the small amount of sunlight that streamed through the holes in the structure's walls and roof, I could see the floor was littered with molted feathers and regurgitated pellets. There was no doubt Barn Owls had been there!
I looked up into the rafters and saw two ghost-like faces staring back at me. Two Barn Owls were reading my every movement. These birds had not been intruded upon before and they were not happy with my presence. I snapped a quick photo of the floor (see above photo) and quietly excused myself from the structure as not to stress them more than I'd already done. The people outside knew by the grin that stretched across my face that I'd seen something special. We walked down to a beaver pond as I talked about birds of prey vomiting the undigestible parts, such as fur and bones of mice, of their prey. With the numbers of pellets I'd seen, Barn Owls had been in that building for a while. From the center of the pond ahead of us, there was a loud coughing sound I'd only heard a couple times before that moment.
A female River Otter (Lutra canadensis) was alarmed by our approach and was, in one vocalization, warning us to stay back and warning her two pups behind her to be cautious. Like the abandoned structure we'd just seen, this beaver pond had not been disturbed in a while, providing wildlife with a quiet and safe place to exist. Wishing to give them their space, up the hill and away from the otter family we hiked. At the top of the trail, a covey of Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginiana) flushed along the edge of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) stand, giving us a good startle. Wow! A bird that was once common in my childhood, a covey of Bobwhites are just about a thing to celebrate nowadays. The smile that had started a few minutes ago with the Barn Owls was growing even larger.
Getting back into the vehicle, we headed back toward the paved road, but something caught my eye. Was that a plant that is vital to an insect whose population isn't doing well? "Can you back up a minute for me?", I asked. Sure enough, it was a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in full bloom.
Just one plant caught my eye as we passed, but I noticed another blooming over here and another over there, until I realized we were standing next to a a nice patch of it. And it was swarming with pollinators! There were Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) and Silver-spotted Skippers (Epargyreus clarus) everywhere and they were gathering pollen and nectar at a fever pitch. Members of the genus Asclepias are vital to Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly whose population has been dropping at alarming rates for years now. To see such a nice patch of Common Milkweed, many of which were well over 3 feet tall (and a few that were pushing 5 feet tall), was cause for optimism.
My attention was soon broken by the playful song of a Yellow-breated Chat (Icteria virens), a bird I don't get to see enough of. As a matter of fact, in fifteen years of banding birds, I've only banded a handful of Chats. Listening to the almost comedic variations in the song, I noticed another Chat calling. Soon, they were joined by a third and, then, a fourth. One popped up atop a thicket of Rhubus and I handed my binoculars to one of the people present. "He's very yellow!", he exclaimed. I told him they can sometimes be tough to spot and to watch it for as long as it sat up.
In thirty minutes, we went from Barn Owls to Otters, from Bobwhites to Milkweed. Now, we listened to a chorus of four Chats. Climbing back in the vehicle, nature had one more gift. A female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) lit on my knee. She was still quite new and glistened in the sunlight. Reaching to grab a photo, I frightened her onto a nearby blade of grass. I was able to get one shot before leaving. I thanked nature for the time and the gifts given to me and went on my way. With any luck, this property will soon be protected and under a larger conservation management plan. Time will tell, but I'm hopeful. It's too special not to be protected...